Fresh from a fantastically successful year touring the world promoting Be Known: Ancient Future Music, their new subtly evocative Afro-centric jazz double vinyl LP, which launched Spiritmuse Records, Kahil El’Zabar, vocals and percussion, Corey Wilkes, trumpet, and Alex Harding, saxophone, a/k/a/The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, (EHE) are embarking on their 47th annual North American tour for February, Black History Month.
(Cellist Ian Maksin was featured on the album.)
Entitled Raise the Spirit, the 25-concert tour will have the band crisscrossing the country and extending into Canada to bring audiences their inimitable brand of sultry, white-hot, improvisational, mind bending jazz.
Starting on the West Coast, they’ll perform in clubs, restaurants, museums, schools, private homes, art galleries, and multi-use performance spaces, almost invariably working with presenters they’ve known for many years, returning again and again to venues and audiences that eagerly await a performance constantly described as spiritually transcendent.
Bandleader El’Zabar proposed the theme for this article, “I have the utmost appreciation and respect for my friends, the presenters throughout North America, visionary folk. These people give of their time and risk their money year-round and year after year. They do so in order to showcase challenging and inspired performances in their communities. They put themselves on the line for art.”
Talking to these impresarios/friends is like getting a crash course in jazz musician royalty; the names of legendary jazz artists spill into the dialogue as they talk about their own backgrounds and place El’Zabar, Harding and Wilkes in the firmament of jazz titans. These are individuals who have measured their coming-of-age by the music that has provided the soundtrack for their lives.
Eric Whittington, proprietor of San Francisco’s Bird & Beckett Books and Records, a neighborhood go-to for new and used titles and vinyl, plus poetry readings and live bands on the weekends, where the EHE tour begins on January 31st, said, “We present a ton of music. It’s a very sweet environment, well-supported by the neighborhood that draws from the Bay. Someone told me he’d seen El’Zabar twice at jazz festivals in Tel Aviv and was blown away. His reputation is well beyond our canon, but I approached him. Corey and Alex are also great musicians- they always want to do the best they can. They’ve played here 4 times and always pack out the room.”
From Bird & Beckett, the EHE travels across the bay for a date at The Back Room Music in Berkeley before heading south to Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, El’Zabar’s colleague, filmmaker/ screenwriter/auteur Dwayne Johnson-Cochran has crafted 4 films about the much-decorated musician, including Be Known: The Mystery of Kahil El’Zabar, a feature film produced by Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, released in 2019 on Amazon. Johnson-Cochran, who just finished the libretto and book for Kanye West’s opera Nebuchadnezzar, had this to say about his muse: “I met Kahil 22 years ago in Chicago when he was performing with the EHE in a loft space. I’d never before heard this syncopated style- at the time, the avant garde jazz AACM music was mostly horn based. This is an incredibly sensitive man who has immense gifts as a composer, arranger and performer. He’s also a dedicated father and those 7 children are all beautiful, successful artists because of him.”
Johnson-Cochran will be there at entertainment lawyer Frank Gruber’s home for a private party on February 5th. Gruber says, “Kahil and the EHE know how to control ferocity to fit the size of the room…but I don’t believe there is a diminution of emotional intensity.”
Celebrated jazz vocal artist Dwight Trible, executive director of L.A.’s The World Stage Performance Gallery, a non-profit community space that celebrates African-American music, literature and spoken word with shows, will host the EHE on February 6th. He’s been collaborating with El’Zabar for 15 years, and reminisced, “I had heard about him long before I met him. He was playing at Jazz Bakery with Ari Brown and Billy Bang, everyone was raving, and it was a mind-blowing experience. In fact, there’s nothing in L.A. today that reminds me of what the EHE does- their music is beautiful, organic, at once earthy and otherworldly. There is no bass or piano and yet the 3 of them utterly mesmerize their audience.”
The February 9th date will be hosted at Artlore Studio in Erie, Pennsylvania, a gem-like art and jewelry gallery and multi-purpose space owned by husband and wife artists Steve Trojhoske and Lena Logvina. Steve told me, “I was a musician, I’ve always been absorbed by music. I went to see The EHE play 22 years ago at The Erie Art Museum. It was so moving! They come back every year. They have a hypnotic impact on all ages, all types of persons, There is nobody that isn’t demonstrably moved. You hear those drums, and then the horn comes in with the sax, and you’ve reached back to the center of the earth. They create a mantra that sends a wave of energy through the crowd.”
DJ Rise Ashen engaged the group for The National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on February 12th. “This is a wonderful place, Ottawa’s equivalent to Lincoln Center in New York or The Kennedy Center in D.C.”, he said. He described the EHE’s performances as “Profound, inimitable music. To truly play with others is to harmonise your vibrations with them, to open yourself to the transcendent experience of music, and that comes from allowing our souls to intertwine and create something larger than ourselves. I have witnessed the power and magic they create many times.”
The EHE will do a “Valentine’s Day” show on February 14th at 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Frank Francis, proprietor of the beloved/now-shuttered Trane Studio jazz room, has booked the EHE for many years. “I’m interested in a particular type of presentation and person, I bring humanity and spirit into a cultural art form, and so does Kahil and his colleagues. El’Zabar is a teacher, a model for the community of art.”
On February 16th the EHE will play at Rhizome DC-Art Learning DIY Culture. I caught up with Bobby Hill of Transparent Productions who sourced the EHE as talent for the gig, “Rhizome is an art-filled performance space in Tacoma Park, Maryland. I met Kahil in 1997 with Ed Wilkerson and we’ve presented him for 23 years. I’ve traveled with him to France. The EHE’s music is energizing in a spirit/body sense. We need this type of healing today, we need to find another way to be.”
Before heading to a solo appearance in the South, the EHE will perform at another private home on February 16th. Attorney Brad Rogers described why he’s formed an intimate relationship with the group, “My 3 boys are all becoming teenagers. I work in the field of community development, but I’m captivated by music. I was lucky enough to be free when the EHE played at An Die Musik LIVE! in Baltimore. I went to the show and the whole world just fell away! It was as though they were playing music that I had kept locked away in a very deep part of myself. It was ancient and it was modern. It was sophisticated and it was elemental. I kept going to see them, but after the last election I felt a darkness descending. I asked myself what I could do in my life, my family, and my community to bring light into the world. And I decided to have a house concert. I didn’t know how to get Kahil on the phone, he’s like a mythical figure. But I reached him. The EHE came and it was magical! After they played my guests told me that they had been feeling haunted by the changes in the world, but the whole experience of the music had given them a connection. I want my boys to have this as part of their lives.”
Gallery 992 in Atlanta is the brainchild of Grammy-award winning saxophonist and community provider Kebbi Williams. “It’s a place for the arts, first and foremost, and a place for the community to blossom, thrive in goodness, and it’s about education, giving back. I’ve known about El’Zabar and The EHE forever; I met them through Dwight Trible. Their impact is amazing. They’ve had people crying. They get multiple standing ovations, standing ovations after every song. Atlanta loves them.”
Three weeks into the month-long engagement, on February 22nd, the band travel to a venue where they’ve appeared 16 times, An Die Musik LIVE! in Baltimore, an “idiosyncratic” concert venue on the 2d floor of a historic townhouse presenting illustrious jazz and classical performers. Proprietor Henry Wong notes, “Somehow Kahil heard about us! Baltimore has a strong history of jazz, and he represents the history of jazz; so it’s appropriate for these Jazz Masters to come here. Their music makes you think, it shapes itself into something like a museum piece.”
The following day, the EHE will travel to upstate New York to see another longtime compatriot, Tom Kohn of Bop Shop Records, a unique, independently owned record shop with a wide bandwidth of offerings. Kohn has put on hundreds of concerts in the 30 years he’s been in business, and in the process, gotten close to the musical artists he loves, “The value of this whole thing to me is largely about who I’ve met; there’s no price that can be put on the friendships I’ve made. I’d hosted a lot of acts and soon the New York artists got wind of it. In 2000 or so, Kahil, Joseph Bowie and Ernest Dawkins came through. Kahil was so interesting and a ball of energy. The EHE have been here 12 times so far; they’ve recorded here. Corey is a sweetie and a M.F. of a trumpet player. When you listen to Alex, it’s so sweet you want to cry. Their music sparks life in a lot of people.”
Indie/experimental presenter and writer Manny Theiner booked the band’s next show at Pittsburgh’s First Unitarian Church, which is also a venue for various other concerts including 2 series of acoustic folk and classical chamber music. Theiner had this to say about the band and it’s impact on audiences, “The two key words are consistency and dedication. Kahil and the group are the *only* (and I do mean the only) people to regularly tour the United States representing the aesthetic of the Chicago avant-garde jazz community. There is nobody else. So, as much as I treasure their immense talent, I also appreciate that Kahil and Co. return year after year to bring the legendary ethos of Chicago progressive jazz to our area.”
Multiply-involved arts enthusiast/writer Jake Austen, talent buyer for Chicago’s stylish bi-level restaurant/music space The Promontory in Hyde Park laid it out for real when he told me, “The Ethnic Heritage ensemble will be here February 28th. They are one of our favorite acts not only because we are humbled to host a group with such a magnificent pedigree and history, but also because they groove! To have artists that visit the most avant garde corners of the Black Arts Movement be able to shift gears and be as funky as Fela or the JBs demonstrates why such a diverse group of music fans flock to their shows. Kahil is a world class composer who has performed here with classical ensembles, and he is also a percussionist that can strip the musical experience down to the simplest, purest form of communication.”
The tour will end on February 29th at Cafe Coda, a premiere jazz/blues space in Madison, Wisconsin that sponsors educational programs in the arts. Proprietor Hanah Jon Taylor is a musician, arts promoter, educator and entrepreneur who’s performed all over the land for 50 years. He was part of the EHE for 3 and 1/2 years. “It was noteworthy. I got to play in new places and the concept of the drummer as bandleader with 2 horns was unique. What they’ve always done is play with the idea of uplifting the consciousness of the musicians and the audience. I have a Master’s degree in music therapy. Healing is an attribute of sound, and research shows that music actually contains a preventative energy. The EHE’s music thus has a cultural, spiritual, and restorative significance.”
Author’s note: An effort was made to reach out to all the presenters/venues for comment. Failure to describe or mention any spot on the tour is not a refection of lack of respect or caring by the EHE or Splash.
*** Experience The EHE in England’s “Gig of the Year”: Drum solo at the Church of Sound, London, March 31, 2019: youtu.be/
IMPROVISE /CONJURE /EVOLVE The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on tour: Raise the Spirit
1/31: Bird & Beckett Books and Records: 653 Chenery St. San Francisco, Ca. 415-586-3733; 2/1: The Back Room Music: 1984 Bonita Ave., Berkeley, Ca. 510-654-3508; 2/2: The WorldBeat Cultural Center: 2100 Park Blvd., San Diego, Ca. 619-230-1190; 2/4: The 4 Cats; Café and Gallery: 1351 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, Ca. 805-547-0278; 2/5: Frank Gruber’s (private party): LA, Ca.; 2/6:World Stage Performance Gallery: 4321 Degnan Blvd., LA, Ca. 323-293-2451; 2/7: S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, Il. 847-492-8860; 2/8: Loft Society: 119 Calhoun St., Cincinnati, Oh. 513-559-9220; 2/9: Artlore Studio: 3406 W. Lake Rd., Erie, Pa. 814-520-8800; 2/11: Radio Bean: 8 N. Winooski Ave., Burlington, Vt. 802-660-9346; 2/12: National Arts Center: 1 Elgin St., Ottawa, ON., Can. 613-947-7000; 2/13: La Sala Rossa: 4848 St. Laurent Blvd., Montreal, Quebec, Can. 514-844-4227; 2/14: 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Media, Arts and Education: 918 Bathurst St., Toronto, Ontario, Can. 416-538-0868; 2/15: Nnamdi Center for Contemporary Art: 52 E. Forest Ave., Detroit, Mi. 318-831-8700; 2/16: Rhizome DC- Art Learning DIY Culture: 6950 Maple St. NW, Washington, D.C. [email protected]; 2/17: Brad Rogers (private party): Baltimore, Md.; 2/20: Gallery 992: 982 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., Atlanta, Ga. 240-651-9375; 2/21: Alvin and Friends: 14 Memorial Hwy, New Rochelle, N.Y. 914-654-6549; 2/22: An die Musik LIVE: 409 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 410-385-2638; 2/23: Bop Shop Records: 1460 Monroe Ave., Rochester, N.Y. 585-271-3354; 2/24: 1st Unitarian Ch.: 605 Morewood Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa. 412-682-0591; 2/26: Nighttown: 12387 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights, Oh. 216-795-0550; 2/27: Tip Top Deluxe Bar: 760 Butterworth St., Grand Rapids, Mi. 816-272-3910; 2/28: The Promontory: 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. W, Chicago, Il. 312-801-2100; 2/29: Cafe Coda: 1224 Williamson St., Madison, Wi. 608-630-9089